British Counter Culture and Film (1960s-70s)

In Britain a post-war baby boom and economic growth fuelled a new phenomenon - youth cultures. The 'American' myth of freedom, choice and opportunity already dazzled Europe through such icons as Hollywood stars, cars, Levis, Coke, Playboy and Elvis.[1] American style was an integral part of the authenticating of this appeal. Preceded by jazz and blues, imported American underground films were first shown in London in Bob Cobbing's Better Books basement in 1966 (Rees 1999 p77)[2]

What was striking to us - an audience of artists, writers, journalists and filmmakers - was the assumption evident in all these films, that making cinema could be a first-person-singular affair, and that film language could be as complex and highly individual. In contrast, The films supported by the one source of public funding at the time, the British Film Institute's Experimental Film Fund, were very definitely cinema shorts, stepping-stones to cinema features. (Curtis 1992 p258)[3]

From Better Books the screenings moved to The Arts Lab in Drury lane where they were programmed by David Curtis.[4] This was where I saw many of my first underground films in 1968. The group that met through these screenings formed a London Filmmakers Co-op on the Mekas model.

British TV was also 'swinging'. Shows like Elkan Allan's 'Ready Steady Go!' and Mike Hedges 'New Tempo' art programme had already been reflecting the new energy with their camerawork and editing style as well as content. Progressive directors like Ken Loach were directing the 'Wednesday Play', and others like Paul Schlesinger and Ken Russell experimented with the new medium of Television. This is the home environment into which the members of the Exploding Cinema collective were conceived.[5]

By the end of the Sixties two types of film groups were emerging in England: one, the London Filmmakers Co-op, offered access to production and exhibition resources and had a large open membership; the another type, the 'film workshops' were collectively run film production companies and overtly political.

The formation of the London Filmmakers' Co-op, in 1966, occurred in the context of a burgeoning counter culture in which communes and collectives were springing up everywhere.[6] This was also close to the time of the Paris Uprising and the Workers' Control Movement.[7] A central theme in British radical culture was the idea of 'getting control of the means of production'. If this could be achieved it was felt that liberation would follow. In the light of this general ethos it is not surprising that the LFMC quickly put a lot of effort into getting its own processing and printing equipment.[8]

However 'Avant garde' soon replaced 'underground' as the preferred label of Co-op output.[9] Many of the filmmakers, who had come out of art rather than film schools, moved away from the ethos of underground film with the development of a formal 'structural materialism' in the Seventies. These were formal and abstract experiments with the material and technology of filmmaking - that forefronted the form as content in classic modernist fashion.[10]

The move to structuralism was not seen at the time as quite the retreat into a safely disengaged abstraction that it can look like in retrospect. This was meant as a radical move to rethink things from the ground up. However, structuralism institutionalised well.[11] On the other hand the informal and politically abrasive underground style did not breathe easily in academic environments and in the UK did not find the discursive support that Jonas Mekas had provided for the US underground.[12] The revolutionary moment of 1968 - 72 had probably simply passed.

In contrast to the co-op model the more political film workshops were focused on the collective production of films (although equipment was lent on an ad hoc basis). Examples of the workshops are Cinema Action (1968), with its mobile cinema and agit-prop productions, and Amber (also 1968), a community film outfit based in Newcastle. Before Margaret Dickenson's book 'Rogue Reels' (1999) little had been published about these important political film groups whose members were mainly lower middle and working class.

Cinema Action were making films and showing them on the hoof. The people who were making the films were presenting them. It was a very exciting thing. They'd put films on in factory canteens, in bus depots, in dock areas, in shipyard assembly areas, in locations where there were masses of workers. The UCS film was shown at Plessey's during the occupation there. It's very evocative when you've got films thrown as a huge projection against a big factory wall showing images of workers in struggle!. (Dave Douglas interviewed by Dickenson 1999 p273)[13]

Before being absorbed by institutions like Channel Four the film workshops had challenged the lack of discourse amongst the conventional cinema audience. Many of the workshops put a high priority on film as a catalyst for discussion and debate. This comes up at least seven times in the interviews, which made up the last third of Rogue Reels, but is not analysed by Dickenson.[14]

The live film event in which tens of people meet, collectively witness a film, and then talk, tends to been valued by filmmakers as much less important than glamorous mass media exposure in which hundreds of thousands of people are addressed as individuals or family groups in domestic isolation. But this assumption should be challenged. The value of live fora in the democratic regeneration of culture may be key as I will argue later.

Dickenson's attention and arguments in the first two sections of her book concern the relation of 'independent' filmmaking to the state. It seems like a sad history of recuperation in a period that was full of high idealism and grassroots cultural activity.

According to Dickenson the lively radical scene was gradually institutionalised during the late Seventies and Eighties. The filmmakers' own organisation, the Independent Filmmakers Association (IFA) that formed in 1974, was sandwiched between the BFI and the workplace demands of the ACCT, the union of the film industry. This process of institutionalisation of independent film production was completed by the formation of Channel Four television.

By 1984 many IFA activists were working for, or funded by, the new Channel Four... Within ten years the IFA and nearly all the other structures which promoted oppositional filmmaking were gone. (Dickenson 1999 p62)

Al Rees takes a more positive view:

The IFA was ... a fragile and temporary union, strung together by partisans for a 'free cinema' from the many different and contradictory if overlapping directions: Cinema Action, the Co-op, disaffected media workers, parts of Screen, film students, documentarists and artists in loose alliance. Astonishingly its impact lingers on. Many of its members were to spread out into the wider mainstream, transmitting its key values into documentary television: John Ellis, Anne Cottringer, Simon Hartog, Keith Griffiths, Rod Stoneman. (Rees 1999 p92)

The demand for access to 'a TV channel of their own', however much it seemed a radical democratic demand at the time, seems to have been a major factor in the decimation of oppositional filmmaking. The process of institutionalisation may have started with the BFI's funding of the IFA in 1977 or earlier when 'The First International Underground Film Festival' was held at the National Film Theatre in 1970. An anonymous article in Cinematics 3, July 1970, describes this festival as an 'establishment take-over bid, disguised as an open screening.'[15]

Margaret Dickenson gives a brief but detailed analysis of how the professional practices of television undermine the collectivist spirit. It is within the details of such practices that hegemony reasserts itself. As an example of these mechanisms Dickenson points to the extra research and editing time required by experimental production which was excised by the fiscal control of schedules demanded by television's professional practices. The result was that "most of those who started off with radical objectives found themselves drifting towards industry norms" (Dickenson 1999 p.78.)




[1] A good account is 'Towards a Cartography of Taste 1935-1962' in Hiding in the Light by Dick Hebdige (Comedia 1988). See also Bomb Culture by Jeff Nuttal (MacGibbon and Kee 1968)


[2] This is not to imply that Britain did not have its own underground traditions to draw on. William Blake is perhaps the most influential figure inspiring both UK and US traditions (It should be remembered that Blake was a friend of Thomas Paine). However as E.P. Thompson says, the English underground is a widespread phenomenon which exists in relation the working class radical culture of the C18th, a culture which underpins contemporary urban mores.

"We must remember the 'underground' of the ballad singer and the fairground which handed on traditions to the nineteenth century (to the musichall, or Dickens' circus folk or Hardy's pedlars and showmen); for in these ways the 'inarticulate' conserve certain values - a spontaneity and capacity for enjoyment and mutual loyalties - despite the inhibiting pressures of magistrates, mill-owners, and Methodists." (E.P. Thompson 1963 p63)


[3] The sense of this quote could easily be applied to most of the films shown at Exploding Cinema twenty five years later.


[4] The Arts Lab in Drury Lane has been discussed in the previous chapter.


[5] See also 'Life Here Today - British New Wave Cinema' in Representations of Working Class Life 1951-1964 by Stuart Laing (Macmillan 1986)


[6] The only substantial early account of the early LFMC is an unpublished thesis by Peter de Kay (aka Deke) Dusinberre, 'English Avant Guarde Cinema 1966 1977' University College London 1977, held in the BFI library.

Much primary material exists in the recently formed British Artists' Film & Video Study Collection at Central St Martins College. This material informed the 'Shoot Shoot Shoot' series of screenings and talks curated by Mark Webber in London May 2002. However the catalogue was in newspaper format and the planned book did not materialize. A PhD thesis on the first ten years of the LFMC by Peter Mudie is being researched under the auspices of the University of Western Australia.


[7] A revealing text is Industrial Democracy in Great Britain: a book of readings and witnesses for workers control, edited by Ken Coates and Anthony Topham (MacGibbon and Kee 1968). Includes a short text entitled 'Open the Ship Owner's Books!' by John Prescott (currently Deputy Prime Minister) and Charlie Hodgins (p400)


[8] (David Curtis in (James 1992 p258)


[9] "After 1970 the term 'underground' was rapidly replaced by 'Avant Garde','experimental' and 'independent' in both the mainstream media and the journals of the movement". Duncan Reekie, 'From the Circus to the Office', Filmwaves, Issue 1 (August 1997 pp4/6). Underground style filmmakers such as Jeff Keen tended to be sidelined in this process. I first saw Jeff Keen's films in his Dr Gaz shows in Brighton around 1969.


[10] This reflected developments in theory and art the 'linguistic turn' and conceptual art. A good example of a filmmaker of this type and a leading member of the LFMC was Malcolm LeGrice (See illustration in Chapter 10).


[11] For an account from the viewpoint of an influential structuralist filmmaker see Peter Gidal in 'Filmwaves 7 (spring 1999). Gidal taught at the RCA from 1971-1983.


[12] The ethos of Exploding that values spontaneity, joy and freedom (understood as autonomy) above the archiving and cataloguing of works, may be seen as a reaction to the LFMC's turn to the humourlessness of structuralism and its subsequent institutionalisation.


[13] On 5th March 1999 I attended a showing of 'So That You Can Live' by Cinema Action (1981 16mm colour 90 minutes) at the Lux, Hoxton. The showing was followed by a discussion with some of the original members including Steve Sprung, Dave Douglas and 'Schlacke' Gustav Lamche.


[14] See Margaret Dickenson's Rogue Reels (1999) pages 230, 236, 238, 240, 253, 273 & 277. Also see index for the use of 'trigger' films.

[15] I am indebted to Duncan Reekie for this quote.